Designing a Basic Dungeon

One of the main tasks of a Dungeon Master in D&D is providing opportunities to adventure for your players. The process to create adventures can be very simple or very involved, depending on how much work you want to put into it.

It’s really important to note that most published adventures contain far more information than you’d ever need for your game. I may have only a handful of words to describe a room and its contents. “Orc statue, turns into stone golem when touched” is a fine description for your own game, but the requirements of a published adventure are far more – and that simple description would result in two or three paragraphs of description in an published adventure!

The easiest type of adventure to design and run is a dungeon adventure: mainly because they contain a limited number of locations and it is obvious how a party might progress from one encounter to the next. The guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for creating dungeons are really, really good, but if you want to start with something simpler, here’s a quick method of designing an old-school dungeon for your players.

Step 1: Create a goal for the players.

Why are the characters entering the dungeon? There are lots of suitable reasons, but here are a couple you could use:

  • The characters are hired to recover an item or person in the dungeon.
  • The characters are hired to kill an enemy in the dungeon.

There’s nothing wrong with the characters entering the dungeon “just because it’s there”, but it’s nice to have a goal!

Step 2: Draw a dungeon map

I use graph paper ruled 5 mm on a side to draw the map, locating an entrance and several rooms connected by corridors or doors. Typically I use the scale of one square on the map = 10 feet; this allows the standard corridor to be 10 feet wide, enough for characters to move down two by two. I very rarely use 5-foot wide corridors, because they can be very frustrating to characters, but 20-foot wide corridors can lead to some interesting tactical situations.

Here are suggested symbols to use on a map from the 1981 Basic Rules:

Step 3: Stock special rooms

You should design the final (goal) room of the adventure yourself, placing monsters, traps, tricks and treasure in it to create a memorable final encounter. You may have other areas that you know what you want in them. Design them as well. Typically, a map uses numbers to indicate interesting areas, with separate textual notes on what the numbers mean.

Use the guidelines either the DMG or the Basic Rules for the DM to choose monsters that make the danger (challenge) level interesting: not too hard or too easy.

Step 4: Stock remaining rooms

Although you can design every room individually, it’s also fine to roll dice and use them to suggest encounters to you. The following method was first presented in the original D&D (although it’s had a couple of slight modifications). The DMG gives a more detailed version of this…

Roll 1d6 to determine the basic contents of a room: 1-2 Empty, 3 Trap, 4 Trick, 5-6 Monster. Then roll a d6 again to see if treasure is present. On a 6, there is treasure. On a 5, there is treasure only if there is a monster, on a 1-4, there is no treasure.

Empty rooms may still have furnishings, libraries, strange wells and the like, but they have nothing that actively challenges the party.

Trap rooms contain a trap of some sort. Some traps include:

(1) Concealed Pit Trap (Perception DC 15 to find) – characters stepping on must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or fall 10-20 feet, taking 1d6 damage for each 10 feet fallen.

(2) Poison Gas – the room is filled with poison gas (which may be detectable or not…) Characters entering must make a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or become poisoned for 1 hour and take 1d4 poison damage for every minute they spend in the poison.

(3) Ceiling Block Falls – some trigger (Perception DC 15 to find) will cause a large block of stone to fall on the triggering character. DC 15 Dexterity saving throw to avoid or take 1d10 bludgeoning damage.

(4) Flash of Light – characters that can see the source must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or be blinded for 1 minute; they may make the saving throw again at the end of each of their turns to regain their sight. (This can be fun when combined with a nearby monster…)

Trick rooms contain something that doesn’t directly harm the characters, but may confuse or intrigue them. For instance,

(1) One-way Door – the door can’t be opened from the far side. (Generally, you couple this with another door which allows further progression into the dungeon, but makes return hard or dangerous).

(2) False Door – the door appears real (Perception DC 20 to realise it’s fake), but doesn’t open

(3) Talking Statue – or doorknob, or altar… something inanimate that engages the characters in conversation, either good or ill.

(4) Illusionary Feature – a wall, door, statue which isn’t really there. Put a monster behind an illusionary wall and it can surprise the characters!

(5) Teleporter – characters touching an item are teleported to another location; great for getting characters lost…

(6) Reverse Gravity – in this room, the ceiling is actually the floor…

Monster rooms contain a monster. Roll a monster group from the following tables or select one based on your group’s capabilities.

Rooms with Treasure should have an amount commensurate with the level of your party. There are tables in the DMG, or you can use the basic ones below.

You are not bound slavishly to the dice rolls; you can move things around or just choose elements that seem right to you, so that the dungeon feels right to you.

Sample Random Monster Tables (by Dungeon or Character Level)

These tables are designed around four characters of the listed level; change numbers of monsters encounter up or down depending on your group’s size.

Die roll
Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
2 1 Animated Armor 1d2 Death Dogs 1 Basilisk
3 2d6 Bats 1d4 Blink Dogs 1 Doppleganger
4 1d2 Black Bears 1d2 Bugbears 1 Hell Hound
5 1d4 Zombies 1d3 Cockatrices 1 Minotaur
6 1d4 Flying Swords 2d4 Zombies 1d2 Gargoyles
7 1 Ghoul 1d2 Ghouls 1d4 Ghouls
8 1d4 Skeletons 1d2 Giant Spiders 1d4 Giant Spiders
9 1d4 Goblins 2d8 Giant Rats 2d4 Gnolls
10 1d8 Giant Fire Beetles 1d4 Gnolls 3d6 Goblins
11 2d4 Kobolds 2d4 Goblins 1d4 Bugbears
12 1d8 Giant Rats 1d4 Orcs 2d6 Hobgoblins
13 1d4 Giant Centipedes 1d4 Hobgoblins 2d4 Orcs
14 1d4 Giant Wolf Spiders 2d8 Kobolds 1d3 Dire Wolves
15 1 Giant Spider 1d8 Giant Wolf Spiders 1 Mummy
16 1d4 Giant Lizards 1 Ochre Jelly 1 Manticore
17 1d8 Poisonous Snakes 1 Ogre 1 Owlbear
18 1d4 Giant Bats 1 Grick 1 Phase Spider
19 2d4 Stirges 1d4 Apes 1 Wight
20 1 Cockatrice 1 Nothic 1 Werewolf

Sample Random Treasure Tables (for level 0-4 challenges)

Type Silver Gold Gems Magic Item
Unguarded 1d6 * 10 2d6 (50%) 1d4 x10 gp (10%) 1 item (2%)
Trapped 1d6 * 100 2d6 * 10 (50%) 1d4 x 50 gp (10%) 1 item (2%)
Monsters 1d6 * 100 3d6 * 10 (50%) 1d4 x 50 gp (20%) 1 item (5%)

Random Magic Items

2d6 Magic Item
2 Headband of Intellect
3 Magic Weapon +1
4 Goggles of Night
5 Spell scroll – level 2 spell
6 Spell scroll – cantrip
7 Potion of Healing
8 Spell scroll – level 1 spell
9 Spell scroll – level 3 spell
10 Gloves of Swimming and Climbing
11 Bag of Holding
12 Gauntlets of Ogre Power

All monsters and magic items can be found in the D&D Basic Rules.

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5 Responses to Designing a Basic Dungeon

  1. Callan says:

    If your players have made up goals for their PC, you can tie those in as reason to go into the dungeon. PC is trying to find his lost sister? He hears that there’s a clue in the dungeon to where she is, or a scrying device that might aid him to find her.

  2. This is a great article, and something I think was sorely missing from the 5e Starter Set. One thing I loved about my old Mentzer basic set was that it gave me the tools to create my own adventures. As kids, my friends and I spent a lot of time designing and playing through dungeons with different characters before I even needed to think about investing in the Expert set.

  3. ankando says:

    The biggest issue I’ve found with Players is just getting them to go into the dungeons from the Overworld. This is a common aspect that I’ve usually found with particular players that are meta-gaming too much and know that death awaits them. I counter this by having each character give me a backstory of some kind so that I can add a more personal twist to each dungeon delve.

  4. Steve Blunden says:

    Thanks for this! One response question i have though is about traps: how do you go about awarding XPs for successfully overcoming a trap? In Pathfinder, there are set Xps to award, depending on the trap. But the D&D Dungeonmaster’s Guide is a bit vague on this. I’ve currently overcome this by awarding 100 xps or so – but is there a better way to do this?

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